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Wollongong Worlds: Wacky TT Phase In The Books

95th UCI Road World Championships 2022 - Team Time Trial Mixed Relay Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images

Enjoying your Worlds Down Under? We are at the halfway point, where they put away the crazy bar extensions and disc wheels and get back to riding bikes on, well, bikes. Credit to some, such as the team from Samoa, who just did the Mixed Relay on regular road bikes, presumably because they respect the simplicity of a good road rig? Or maybe I am projecting there.

Anyway, here is a quick recap of all of the events that went on so far. And as even I, someone who is a bit dismissive of time trials as entertainment, have to admit... it’s been a rather dramatic week. Even for cycling.

Netherlands Nightmare Ride

Earlier today the UCI World Championships, mired in a slew of time trialling, found its entertainment value moving toward its anticipated peak, with a nail-biting and generally fascinating event, the Mixed Relay. While ITTs are nice, and chapeau to winners in all six(ish) events (Women’s U23 title is taken from the best young rider in the Elite race), things didn’t reach peak intrigue until today.

The Mixed Relay has been a curio for a couple years, with decent riders staffing the medal-winning teams, but this time around it was a star-studded event as regards both genders. Did Mathieu van der Poel kick it out for the ITT? Nope, but he was all too happy to help the Netherlands’ chances in the mixed event, along with superstar women Ellen van Dijk (seeking a second gold medal) and Annemiek van Vleuten. Italy was stacked with big TT names in former champion Filippo Ganna, U23 winner Vittoria Guazzini, and heavy hitter Elisa Longo Borghini. Denmark had not one but two Bjergs. Australia had Durbo, Plappy and the home crowd. Siwtzerland were the actual favorites, with Stefan Küng and Marlen Reusser driving the train.

But the Netherlands had bling. Stars galore, including Bauke Mollema (NL Nats champ, former winner in this event, conqueror of monuments and grand tours, etc.) along with the three vans, plus Daan Hoole and Riejanne Markus. Huge squad with huge names. This was going to be awesome.

Australia crushed it early, before the favorites group from which they were curiously omitted, but whatever. Then the Danes got going very fast, only for the French to beat them at the first check, but not the second, except the French came in tied with Denmark! Australia were still up 20 seconds, so no rainbows were at stake in this dead heat, and sure enough the Dutch, Italians and Swiss all came out fast enough to not worry about the fate of France and Denmark.

Switzerland stole the show, as became apparent pretty quickly. Italy dropped five seconds, but threatened to grab gold as the women’s leg of the relay sped up. Netherlands... Oh dear.

This is where things get weird. Mollema dropped his chain inexplicably, reached down to fix it, made it worse, and slowed down to the point where he had to grab a replacement bike. By then van der Poel and Hoole were too far up the road and would have to fight on as a twosome. The pair had lost 21 seconds to the Swiss at the first time check and 40” when the women started. The Dutch would go on to lose by 52 seconds, so most of that is on Mollema’s slippery chain.

But not all, because things went from bad to worse literally seconds after the women rolled out for the second leg.

Van Vleuten’s mysterious crash was initially thought to be caused by a flat tire, but someone analyzed it and figured out that the tire burst when it hit the curb. However, CyclingNews got all sleuthy and did a frame-by-frame analysis in their video lab in London, and a panel of experts determined that the crash was in fact a cascade of problems that initiated with... her chain slipping out of the big ring.

So that’s two chain slips. One chain slides off a fixed ring, the other slips from big to small. You know what those rings and chains have in common? “FUCKING SRAM!” as Mollema himself would say. Sorry to say this, but someone in Chicago HQ, or maybe the Nijkerk office, is not having a good day.

Foss Flips the Script

By now, you have probably not just watched Tobias Foss win the rainbow jersey in the men’s ITT, but have seen some of the shocked responses. There are several articles out there detailing how Foss saved his very best for last, overcoming deficits to Stefan Küng at both early checkpoints as well as Remco Evenepoel at the first one. Not exactly unprecedented — the concept of saving your best for last is common enough in ITT circles — but actually doing it is another thing. At your first elite world championships.

It’s actually far from his first Worlds of any kind though. Foss was 15th and 8th in the junior men’s ITT in 2014 and ‘15, then 17th at the U23 level in Bergen in 2017 (a few hundred km from his home near Lillehammer), then 6th and 12th in 2018 and ‘19. He was in Richmond, Ponferrada, Innsbruck and Harrogate. But only when he got to the outskirts of Sydney, as a full-fledged World Tour rider, did he strike gold.

There are two explanations: the kid leveled up, and the course worked for him. There can be no doubting the latter. On paper, it looked like a twisty course, but the roads of Wollongong are wider than the typical European route, more like what you would see in California. So the route favored guys who could blast through wide corners at high speed. That included all of the top guys. Or did, until it no longer included Magnus Sheffield.

I don’t do crash videos unless the rider is OK, which Sheffield was, though he had to be disappointed in some extreme way. He talked about needing to risk all to win, but in the end a bit less risk would have served him better.

Anyway, while high speed cornering might have been the most unique part of this race, it’s not how Foss won. The final third of the course was the straightest part, but even there, it’s not really the story. The last 15km included numerous features, and Foss just gradually raised his speed almost imperceptibly (from studying the graphs) over that part. He simply executed to perfection, no one single, dramatic thing but everything he needed to do well, he did.

Foss also didn’t boss the field along some pre-existing blueprint for success. In fact, the 25-year-old has no past history of World Tour victory, with his only wins since joining the top level at the Norwegian Championships, where he has two ITT wins and one road race win last year. His most impressive results were in the 2021 Giro d’Italia, where he was third in the opening ITT (all of 8km) and took 9th on GC. He did the Giro again this year, then skipped the Tour and prepped for Worlds at the Deutschland Tour and the Canadian GP races. No remarkable results. It all just came together in Wollongong with no warning. He was just on a day.

Oh, chapeau to his dad. It’s always good to bet on your kids.

Translation: Papa Foss placed a bet (around US $5, so yeah) on his son to win, at 100:1 odds. Nice little bonus! Probably enough to throw a victory party when Tobias gets home next week.

Vegemite Bites

  • Scandinavian uprising!! So far the biggest winners were a Norwegian, another Norwegian, and for a while I thought Denmark was going to add to the list in the Mixed Relay, only to be usurped by fellow Scandinavians from Switzerland! [Sorry, American joke.]
  • OK, at least a half-Swede, Zoe Bäckstedt, cashed in her talent with another gold medal, adding to her junior road race title in last year’s Worlds and the gold she earned in Fayetteville as junior World Champion in cyclocross. She rides for Britain and grew up there, so maybe half-Swede isn’t how she feels, although she’s a real chip off the old block — Dad, Magnus Bäckstedt, who rode for Sweden a lot, so I am guessing she doesn’t mind the label. Dad won Paris-Roubaix, and not often mentioned is that her mom too, Megan Hughes, was a pro and represented GBR at the World Championships in 1998 in the ITT. So it’s no shock that Zoe has a real diesel motor, which she used to crush the field by 1:36, the largest gap between any two riders in the field except for the last two, riders from South Africa and Pakistan, the latter falling over 2’ behind. Translation: she’s just head and shoulders above that level of competition. Just 17, Bäckstedt seems to have an impossibly bright future, though we should always pump the brakes on projecting teenagers out into adulthood. For now, she’s just been fantastic and is on a path to a serious career.
  • I didn’t see the Elite Women’s race — Australian time is tough on ... pretty much everyone besides Australia (and I say that tongue firmly in cheek and with full respect for Australian fans who could say a few things about dealing with CET). But I did get a bit of obscure, fun art trivia out of the race, courtesy of our own SuperTed, master of the FSA Directeur Sportif site: the duel between Ellen Van Dijk and Grace Brown resulted in final standings of Van Dijk-Brown. Which happens to (almost) be the name of a color, Van Dyke Brown, named for a shade of brown popularized by Dutch painter Anthony van Dyck. So you learn something every day, including three different ways to spell van Di-y-j-ck-e.
  • Foss has been the Norwegian national champion twice in a row in the ITT discipline, and the rider he beat the last two times, Søren Wærenskjold, showed up big at the U23 ITT, where he took the victory over Alec Segaert of Belgium and Brit Leo Hayter, Ethan’s brother. Wærenskjold is a sprinter for Team Uno-X by day, and he attributed his win to cornering skills developed by... playing Formula One on his Playstation? [Gonna guess he was joking there.]
  • Were you confused about the week’s other disappointing story, the mechanical kerfluffle over the bike to be used by Belgian junior Jens Verbrugghe? Here’s the explanation. Verbrugghe is the son of Rik Verbrugghe, the current Israel-Premier Tech DS and former all-rounder who has La Fleche Wallonne to his palmares, among other things. Dad could nail a time trial, and Jens was a favorite for the juniors event after winning the silver medal at the European Championships in July. But when Jens turned up to race, his bike was deemed illegal, and he had to ride a hastily arranged replacement, with predictably poor results (he took 25th). Jens was devastated, everyone decided it was just an accidental thing, and we all move on.

But what was the problem exactly? The 53rd tooth in his big ring. A 53 is not per se illegal but under UCI rules — which are going to be rescinded for 2023 — a gearing cannot enable a bike to exceed 7.93 meters per pedal revolution. In Verbrugghe’s case, a 52 ring would have been inside the limit, but the 53 ring enabled him to cover a distance that was 15 centimeters too long. OK, fine, but why is this even a rule? Because 53x11 gearing was thought to put junior riders’ knees at risk of damage. Now apparently some further testing has been done to show that this isn’t the case. But the rule is on the books for a few more months, and, well, the rule is on the books. Verbrugghe is just 17, so here’s to many better days ahead.

  • The real winners in Wollongong so far have been Hitchcock fans who, for decades, have been trying to warn us of the dangers of birds. If only we had listened.

Mollema, who had already been dropped after his chain problem, was en route to soloing home when he was felled by this swooping bird, after which his carcass was picked clean by the marauding seagull and friends, putting his start in Sunday’s road race in jeopardy. This was Mollema’s second brush with the deadly fliers, after a magpie targeted him for elimination on Tuesday.

Earlier this week, a magpie — probably a different one, since they work in gangs — went after Remco Evenepoel during training, who says he was “terrorized” by the bird for some time, before he knocked over a gas pump handle, which spilled fuel that then ignited exploded and sent hundreds of magpies into flight. This being Australia, it is believed that the magpies and seagulls all harbor a deadly venom that they use to stun their victims with before feasting on their flesh. The government of New South Wales has recommended that everyone flee at the sight of any birds, and UCI officials have scheduled a meeting for later next week to consider the recommendation. Stay tuned for updates.

  • And now, finally, the road race phase begins tomorrow evening (a/k/a Friday locally) with the U23 and junior men’s races. I can’t hope to offer you a preview, but rest assured, the Men’s race will have a short list of usual suspects — Pogačar, Van Aert, van der Poel, Bling, at least one Dane, and Alexander Kristoff. Pogs has already said he doesn’t think the course will give the climbers any advantage over the “sprinters,” so they will just have to see who has any matches to burn in the 267th km. On the women’s side, however, the fall of van Vleuten, which came with a crack in her elbow, probably diverts the race from “everyone follow Annemiek” to ... something else. The Dutch will still have a strong squad, possibly still including van Vleuten, plus Marianne Vos, Demi Vollering, etc., but the Italian, Australian and Belgian squads all look loaded with sprinters and generally strong riders. I don’t know who will win, but I do know it looks a lot less predictable now.